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Thursday, September 02, 2010

New Weird and Scifi Strange: Part Two -- Invented Genres and Moments More

(See my previous post on New Weird here.)

II.  Invented Genres and Moments More

A lot has been discussed in the last year about the "Scifi Strange" subgenre.  One of the few people talking about it is its creator, Jason Sanford--contrary to what Adam Callaway says here, Sanford is, in fact, coining a subgenre, even if his intentions are not tied to the political reasonings tied into the business of genre-making.  Sanford has made his case quite clear:  he considers Scifi Strange to be an extension of traditional science (and science fiction) to its logical breaking point; stories of this genre seem to take a page from the theoretical and pseudo-philosophical fields of science (quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, and so forth) and imagine where science, in general, might go when directed under the same forward-thinking mentality.  Understandably, many of the stories Sanford considers to be emblematic of the Scifi Strange genre reflect this quality (more of his thoughts on the subgenre can be found in this interview).  I, however, have a few issues with the discussion, which I will try to elucidate here.

A fundamental problem with "genres" seems, to me, to be that they are often poorly defined.  For overarching
genres, this isn't necessarily an issue, but for small subgenres it presents a serious problem.  Catch-all definitions seem to have more of a place for much larger forms (such as romance, speculative fiction, the novel, and so on), since they don't require an excessive amount of exclusion to provide a reasonable category below which one can place related texts; subgenres, however, are meant to evoke one of two (or both) primary objects:  1) a period of writing (New Wave or Golden Age), or 2) a specific kind of writing, usually decided by a common theme or visual element, or the combination thereof (Cyberpunk or Space Western).  Scifi Strange, at least how it has been defined most recently by Jason Sanford and Adam Callaway, seems to lack, in part, both of these elements.  Specifically, I think a few quotes from Callaway deserve to be addressed directly, particularly since I am going suggest that Scifi Strange is not what people think it is in a future post--assuming, of course, that Scifi Strange actually exists.

To start:
SciFi Strange, on the other hand, attempts to evoke the sensawunda from the Golden Age, but combine it with the literary sensibilities of the New Wave, or, more accurately, writer’s who grew up reading the New Wave. The stories Sanford nominates as SF Strange do not sound like New Wave stories to me. They sound like stories written by people who read the Golden Age stuff young, and then the best of the New Wave during their formative teenage years. SF strange stories are like alchemical batteries combining elements that shouldn’t react with one another. If anything, the elements should repel each other. But give them the right catalyst (aka, the writer), and the elements respond in a barely controlled explosion. SF Strange stories are barely contained explosions.
Callaway's assertion, taken in part from Sanford's various discussions of Scifi Strange, is less problematic than what he suggests moments before about New Weird, especially because he acknowledges, as do I, that the connection between Scifi Strange and New Wave is a thin one at best--although I say as much primarily because I think New Wave has become a catchall term in much the same way as other subgenres, rendering it somewhat useless to the discussion of science fiction "movements" and "classes," since it should represent a specific group of texts, rather than a whole body of texts that simply do not fit together because they lack a connecting point.  For me, I look at New Wave and think of Samuel R. Delany and writers like him who were unafraid to use dense or experimental prose (by science fiction standards), to expand the horizons of science fiction's discussion of gender, taboos, and so on, and who were also unafraid to shove aside linear narratives for something else altogether.  Maybe I'm wrong, but that is what the definition of New Wave evokes for me, and when I take that into account, I find the connection between Scifi Strange and New Wave almost non-existent.  Scifi Strange stories certainly experiment, but their experimentations, to me, seem to have less to do with the expansion of science fiction's social horizons than they do with a general blurring of genre distinctions.

However, while I agree with Callaway on the New Wave origins, I disagree with his argument that Scifi Strange stories are somehow a successful conversation of disparate elements.  Many SciFi Strange stories seem to blur the edges between fantasy and science fiction, albeit through the stretching of science to its mystical limits.  While these two genres imply an opposition, they have historically been quite the opposite.  One need look no further than the science fiction and fantasy bookshelf and early science fiction, in which the two genres blended almost effortlessly in the form of SF icons like Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Andre Norton, and so on.  Blending genre elements is a common occurrence in SF precisely because SF and F are not disparate genres.  Both SF and F draw from a similar source, and while they do attempt to go in different directions with the elements they draw from that originary scourse, it is not unexpected that the two would occasionally overlap without creating issues with narrative cohesion and setting.  There is no repellent nature to be exposed here, because SF/F are simply branches from the same tree and inherently complementary in their apparent differentiation.  As Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Scifi Strange embodies this very idea: that truly distant futures might not resemble a world we know and might instead look to us to be composed of elements that defy our understanding of the present--i.e. a limited, sometimes only near-future-oriented understanding.

But Callaway has a little more to say about Scifi Strange:
SF Strange stories have no rhyme or reason to them. They are connected by their non-interconnectedness.
Underneath the pseudo-academic language, Callaway might simply be misinterpreting or misapplying a fundamental quality of Scifi Strange:  that of its strangeness.  Scifi Strange stories seem to have no rhyme or reason, but only because the worlds they posit are ones which are disconnected from our present so completely so as to resemble almost nothing.  There are hints and glimpses of something we know, but the core of Scifi Strange is that it is an utter disconnection of our future from our present.  There is a "rhyme" and a "reason" beneath this.  There are stories that need telling, ideas in need of conveying, and a purpose that can be discerned.  Scifi Strange is about more than what we know, even where it plays at being only a product of the desire for wonder (the desire for the "sensawunda").  This idea--that the displacement of the present from the scientific narrative of a Scifi Strange story is the core concept at work--is what gives every Scifi Strange story its strength and its identity as "Scifi Strange."

But I don't want to get too deep into that now.  There is a third post to come in which I will give my definition of Scifi Strange, one which is somewhat different from Jason Sanford's, Adam Callaway's, and others who have talked about this subgenre.  It has probably become clear over the last two posts on these subjects that I am of the type who desires rigid definitional structures.  Loose definitions for specific subgenres are always problematic.  My continued discussion of Scifi Strange will address that very issue.

Stay tuned.

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  1. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Hey! Look at this! Google's cool--there's a whole piece on what the New Wave was. Check it out!

    Reading stuff before writing stuff--that's the best.


  2. Two points:

    1) For someone who wants to be taken seriously, you shouldn't be citing Wikipedia to me as if it's somehow a legitimate source.

    2) That page actually has *gasp* Samuel R. Delany on it. And who did I cite as what I consider to be New Wave? Samuel R. Delany.

    Actually reading the post you're attempting to belittle--that's the best.

    P.S.: I specifically said, just in case you don't want to read the post, or decided to skim it:
    "For me, I look at New Wave and think of Samuel R. Delany and writers like him who were unafraid to use dense or experimental prose (by science fiction standards), to expand the horizons of science fiction's discussion of gender, taboos, and so on, and who were also unafraid to shove aside linear narratives for something else altogether."

    Seems like that reasonably includes J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch, and others on the Wiki page you gave me.